How to Satirize This Election? Even the Onion Is Having Trouble
“It’s hard to turn up the volume when the speaker is already blown out and everyone’s ears are already bleeding,” the managing editor, Ben Berkley, said.
Another complication is the competition from social media. In today’s Twitter instaworld, everybody’s a comedian. The Onion tries to cut through the cacophony by finding original jokes and creating what Mr. Bolton called “a strange alternative world” in which familiar people are assigned new personae.
In Onion-land, for instance, Pope Francis can be found in the basement of the Vatican, frantically searching for his plastic nativity scene (“‘Oh, come on, where’s the third wise man?’ the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said.”), while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been turned into a heavy metal fan who sells weed at the Lincoln Memorial.
“With Hillary, we hyperbolize her traits — her narrow-minded focus and her woodenness, and we crank it up to insane degrees,” Mr. Bolton said.
But not so with Mr. Trump. Rather than presenting him as a more luridly hued, bombastically outrageous version of himself, à la Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live,” The Onion has turned him into a new character: Donald Trump, sensitive loner, stuffing birdseed into his pockets and talking tenderly to the pigeons he keeps on the Trump Tower roof.
“He’s a hard nut to crack,” said Chad Nackers, the head writer. “One way to do it is through his supporters or surrogates, which allows you to have crazier stuff because it’s one step away from him.” The writers also like to play around with the idea that “his brain is at war with itself,” Mr. Nackers said.
Loyal readers of The Onion will be familiar with the recurring character known as “area man,” whose existence pokes fun at “resident does something”-style articles in local newspapers. Joining him in importance this election is the nation itself, a character standing in for all of us. “Nation Puts 2016 Into Perspective by Reminding Itself Some Species of Sea Turtles Get Eaten by Birds Just Seconds After They Hatch,” read a recent story.
No media outlets are having an easy time financially, and in 2012, The Onion had to move to Chicago from New York. The company raises revenue in part through sponsored content and an internal division called the Onion Labs, which produces advertisements for clients. It does not make its finances public, but last year it received an infusion of money when Univision Communications bought a controlling 40 percent stake.
The editorial team says Univision has not meddled in its content but has pushed to expand the company’s video output. (In addition to The Onion, the broader company — Onion Inc. — also includes ClickHole, a site that sends up mindless listicle websites, and the A.V. Club, a non-fake entertainment website. In all, it has 146 full-time employees.)
A recent video series, in which some (fake) American voters demonstrate how clueless and feckless they are, is a result of that effort. It includes, for instance, a segment in which an 83-year-old voter announces that she knows exactly who she wants to vote for but that “on Election Day, I’ll misread the ballot completely.”
In conjunction with Fusion television, which is also owned by Univision, The Onion recently produced its first television special, a 30-minute retrospective of some of the high (or low, take your pick) moments in the 2016 election.
Clearly, this year’s campaign has created a pressing demand for comic relief. Lauren Pulte, an Onion spokeswoman, said the election coverage had so far generated 79 million page views, compared with 43 million views for the 2012 election. In video, she said, there have been 78 million views across all platforms, compared with 15 million in 2012.
But being funny is a sobering business, and it’s hard to make a comedy writer laugh. The morning meeting the other day proved so frustrating that Mr. Bolton called a second one for the afternoon, instructing the writers to produce new headlines.
A few seemed perfect, but once again, most fell by the wayside, including ‘“Is it Too Late to Register?’ Ask 19 Million Americans.” Of 1,500 or so possible headlines a week, Mr. Berkley said, maybe 30 or 40 make it into some sort of item.
The mood of the nation is reflected in the writers’ room, Mr. Bolton said, and the mood at the moment is fretful.
“Comedy is a good way for us to channel anxiety,’’ he said.
Hence, the recent story about how the nation might soothe its jangled nerves by remembering that at least it was not eaten at birth, like the sea turtle. But if you read the item closely, it does not really offer any consolation, seeming to demonstrate that even satire (and the existential troubles of turtles) cannot soothe the nation’s woes just now.
“After pondering the sea turtles’ fate for several more minutes,” the item says, the nation “started growing jealous that the turtles at least get to have everything be over with quickly.”
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